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Crimes Revisited

Sacco and Vanzetti
First Run

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
IFC First Take


On the morning of August 24, 1927, a few weeks before I started high school, I read the headlines in The New York Times announcing the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. I knew something about their story--newspapers and magazines had been brimming with controversy over it ever since I had been able to read--and my parents and their friends had often discussed it.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, I thought, at least the story is now finished. Last week I saw a new documentary about the case.

Peter Miller, who has worked with Ken Burns, made Sacco and Vanzetti because he feels that the red scare of the early 1920s has an analogue in current fears and jingoism. Even though the story is not much of a parallel with our current miring in mendacity, it shocks in two ways: it shows us how recently, relatively speaking,racial and political prejudices were openly allowed to smirch justice; and it makes us take a look at the vitality of liberalism now. Would such an outrage cause an equivalent storm today?

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants in Massachusetts, a shoemaker and a fish peddler, who had become anarchists. In 1920, when a paymaster and a security guard were murdered and robbed in South Brain tree, the two anarchists were hustled into guilt for the crimes. (Vanzetti was also tied to another robbery, was tried--under the same judge who later sat on the trial of both men--and was flimsily found guilty.) The trial for the South Brain tree crimes attracted international attention because it was blatantly clear that the two men were being framed and railroaded for their political views. Other than the Rosenberg case, no American trial I know of has become such an international issue since then. Intellectuals and artists around the world--Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Bertrand Russell among them--protested the Sacco and Vanzetti proceedings and asked for anew trial. But after all the court maneuvers and appeals over seven years, all the protests and demonstrations, the two men were electrocuted.

Many artists have used the case as a subject. An Upton Sinclair novel, a Ben Shahn painting, two plays by Maxwell Anderson, and an opera that Marc Blitzstein was writing when he was killed, are only some of the results. These facts are intrinsically relevant: but,in my view, the most notable works that grew out of the trial were the letters of the two men and their addresses to the court, which were collected and published soon after their deaths. They had not known much English when they were arrested; they learned the language during their seven-year imprisonment. (Tony Shalhoub and John Turturro read bits of the letters on the film's soundtrack.)

From Vanzetti's statement when he was sentenced to death: "If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men.... Our words--our lives--our pains--nothing! The taking of our lives--lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler--all! The last moment belongs to us--that agony is our triumph." Walter Lippmann said of the letters that "if Sacco and Vanzetti were professional bandits, then historians and biographers who attempt to deduce character from personal documents might as well shut up shop. By every test that I know of for judging character, these are the letters of innocent men."

The whole history of the case is much more complicated, legally and otherwise, than the above summary; books on the subject, pro and otherwise, have multiplied over the years. Miller's film is certainly not encyclopedic, but it is sufficiently full for its intent. In conventional but competent style, he blends old newsreels and photos, inter cut by interviews with current historians and with descendants of the victims and (in Italy) of the two principals. He brings into new being a story that is still healthfully discomfiting to remember.

Two other films, not documentaries, also revisit past crimes. Ken Loach, who has spent much of his directing career investigating political messes, takes another look at the Irish Troubles. A television series called Days of Hope was made in 1975; Hidden Agenda came in 1990. Now there is The Wind That Shakes the Barley.(This hazardous title comes from an Irish patriotic poem by Robert Dwyer Joyce.) The material is very familiar: films dealing with Irish revolt against British occupation are hardly novel. Even the split among the rebels themselves, after the treaty with England was signed, was filmed not long ago. Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson as "the Big Fellow," came through in 1996.

Loach's one claim to originality has made big trouble for him. His film begins in 1920, and very soon it plunges graphically into the brutality of British solders attacking rebels and suspects with a violence that presumably has truth in it because of the objections that these scenes have raised in the British press. I can't remember equivalent savagery in any other film on this subject. Few have said that the violence is false; most have argued that there was no need to dig into it again--particularly at this time.

But Loach makes a point of showing that violence is not any nation's monopoly. After the treaty was signed in 1921 creating the Irish Free State as a British dominion and retaining the six northern counties for Britain, a splinter group of Irish absolutists battled those Irishmen who had signed and agreed. Violence, especially ghastly because it was between Irishmen, soon followed, and dissident Irishmen were imprisoned in camps. I knew one such man in his later years--Frank O'Connor, the masterly author, who said: "The Free State Party ... accepted the treaty with England, and the Republicans ... opposed it by force of arms, as the Irgun was later to do in Israel."

These final scenes give a twist, a special irony, to a picture that,convincingly made though it is, seems a bit familiar all through.Loach's cast fits perfectly, and his directing has his usual extra tang of commitment. He provides almost a sensory response to his material: we seem to feel the textures and scent the air. Here he depends, rightfully, on the cinematography of Barry Ackroyd. All the agonies and brutalities in this film take place in a country that is exquisite, seemingly created for peace. The leafy lanes and thatched cottages are used by Ackroyd unostentatiously: there is a constant contrast between what life ought to be here and what it is.

Zodiac is about the serial killer who roiled the San Francisco area in the 1960s, who may still be alive and, if so, is obviously still at large. The screenplay by James Vanderbilt is based on two books by Robert Graysmith, who is himself a character in the film, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Quite apart from its virtues, which are few, this (nearly)three-hour picture proves yet again that the public has two insatiable appetites: for the bustle of newspaper offices and for the bustle of detectives' offices. (Turn on your television set tonight, virtually any channel.) Graysmith was a political cartoonist on the San Francisco Chronicle who became hooked on the killer's story as his paper covered it and who eventually followed it on his own for years.

"Years" is the operative word. The story begins with a double assault in 1969 and, so far as it can be proved, is not yet over.David Fincher, the director, dots his film with subtitles that mark the dates of each sequence, as if such specifics were essential.Most of the time they are merely trite grabs at urgency and importance, as such gimmicks so often are. Fincher thus dresses up his already-known interest in sanguine territory: Seven relished mutilation, and Fight Club reveled in the physical extremes latent in seemingly conventional men. But Zodiac has little to distinguish it from the yard-goods directing of countless comparable films and broadcast series.

The screenplay just keeps going until it stops. At one point, pretty far along, someone asks Graysmith why he keeps on pursuing this story, since he is neither a detective nor a reporter. He says honestly that he needs it. The search has apparently become a part of his being. It is not, however, a part of our beings. The picture tries hard for addictive mystery, but it is full of scenes that promise insight and don't deliver.

This is by no means the fault of the three leading actors.Gyllenhaal always manages to present a person of some sensitivity without leaning on actorish resources. As the detective chiefly involved in the case, Mark Ruffalo, simply by a kind of frankness,lifts the role out of a cliche into a truly existent man who has a profession and is practicing it. The surprise, which ought to be the wrong word, is Robert Downey Jr. as a reporter who quits the Chronicle after several disappointments. In between Downey's too-rare appearances we tend to forget that he is one of the most gifted actors in American film. His performance of the title role in Chaplin was insufficiently appreciated; his opportunistic television performer in Natural Born Killers was even more grossly disregarded. Here Downey makes this reporter a man who can count on our understanding how he feels about the world he is in.

These three films that visit (and revisit) actualities of murder are members of an ancient line. Ever since the Greeks, these revisitings have been part of drama. We can infer that, from Athens onward, if we know that the killings really happened, we enjoy them more.